“If I am going to be remembered for anything, it will hopefully be what I did for the community in terms of serving nonprofits,” said Michael Towbes in a recent interview with the Business Times.
But as a true renaissance man, it is doubtful Towbes will be remembered just for that. For nearly 50 years, the developer and financier has been planting his legacy throughout the Central Coast in the form of residential and commercial developments, banking offices and major contributions to area nonprofits. He is now chairman and owner of both Montecito Bank & Trust and The Towbes Group in Santa Barbara.
Towbes first came to California as a civil engineer for the Navy at Point Mugu. In 1956, he started his first company in Los Angeles with his friend and mentor, Eli Luria. After hearing the Central Coast was becoming a hot spot for development, Towbes moved to Santa Maria and, ultimately, became a Montecito resident.
The Towbes Group owns and manages about 1.3 million square feet of commercial real estate and more than 1,850 multi-family residential units, from Lompoc and Santa Maria to Ventura and Westlake Village. The company controls four shopping centers throughout the Tri-Counties. Towbes’ operations also encompass a discretionary real estate investment fund called Towbes Capital Partners.
Founded in 1975, Montecito Bank & Trust has grown to a $770 million regional financial institution with seven branches and another on the way. For the first half of 2008, the bank reported a net income of $5.7 million, up from $4.4 million a year earlier despite a slowing trend in the financial industry. Loans and deposits grew as well. Montecito Bank & Trust also operates a Wealth Management Division and gives $1 million to more than 100 local non-profits each year.
But Towbes’ personal philanthropic efforts extend far beyond his bank’s contributions. He created and funds The Towbes Foundation, which provides support to organizations in the area of arts, education, medical research and private property rights. He has also been a driving force behind the renovation of The Granada Theatre in Santa Barbara and sits on the boards of the Cottage Hospital Foundation, University of California, Santa Barbara Trustees and the Foundation for Santa Barbara City College.
“To me, the reason to be successful in business is to do good things with what you earned and not just accumulate the money,” said the Princeton University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate.
In his own words, Towbes provides a glimpse of the man behind the Central Coast empire in the following question and answer session with the Business Times:
Barbara Pearson: How do banking and real estate tie together such that you own companies in both industries? Why do you want to be involved in both?
Michael Towbes: Real estate and banking are closely interrelated in that real estate depends heavily on the financing which is frequently provided by banks. In fact, more than half of the loans of Montecito Bank & Trust are related to real estate, which is one of the major industries in Santa Barbara. I got into banking more or less by accident, but I think it’s very compatible with real estate, and I certainly enjoy my involvement with Montecito Bank & Trust.
BP: What is your favorite part of your job?
MT: In spite of the various things in which I’m involved, I really enjoy the creative part of developing projects, studying potential land uses, analyzing the site and developing the best plan. I started out as a civil engineer, so that probably has something to do with it.
BP: Describe a typical day.
MT: I spend a considerable amount of my time involved with nonprofits such as Cottage Hospital and The Granada. There are others, but those are the major ones. I spend a lot of time in meetings, and I’m addicted to e-mail and my BlackBerry.
BP: What is your secret to success or what advice would you give to an aspiring businessperson?
MT: My advice to aspiring businesspersons is first to keep your eyes open to opportunities. They arise all the time, and most people seem to miss them because they aren’t looking for them. My second bit of advice is if you’re involved in real estate, avoid overleveraging. Leveraging can be a very valuable tool, but it can also lead to disaster. Last, but certainly as important, is to bring the best possible people onto your team.
BP: You have been recognized as Santa Barbara’s Man of the Year, with the News-Press Lifetime Achievement Award and the UCSB Chancellor’s Medal. What recognition have you received in life that meant the most to you?
MT: I think the recognitions I received which mean the most to me are the fact that I was selected both as Volunteer of the Year and Philanthropist of the Year by the Association of Fundraising Executives. I spend a great deal of my time on boards of nonprofits as well as my personal philanthropy. There are a lot of people who are good at one of those or the other, but not too many who manage to do both.
BP: Why is philanthropy so important to you?
MT: Philanthropy is important to me because it’s a way of sharing my good fortune. This community has been very good to me, and my goal even as a developer is to leave it a better place than I found it, and a lot of that depends on strengthening our nonprofit community. I also do my philanthropy in a very public way in the hope that it will encourage others who have more resources than I do to be generous to our community.
BP: How do you choose the organizations you are involved with?
MT: The organizations in which I’m involved are those where I feel I can make a real contribution in terms of my background and knowledge and those which are involved in doing things which are of great interest to me.
BP: When do you plan to retire?
MT: Why should I retire when I’m having so much fun? Anne and I do travel a lot, and I enjoy that, but I also enjoy the work that I’m doing, so I’d like to continue to do both.
BP: Do you believe the South Coast is sheltered from recession?
MT: I don’t believe the South Coast is sheltered from recession. A recession may not impact this community as much as it will many other communities because we don’t have a boom and bust economy in Santa Barbara, but that doesn’t mean we can avoid a recession.
BP: What are the positives and negatives of operating in the various regions of the Central Coast?
MT: The most positive thing for me in operating in the Central Coast has been the fact that I have focused my efforts in this area for virtually my entire career, even though there are enormous barriers to development in terms of time, cost and uncertainty. On the other hand, patience and taking the long view about things has enabled me to survive in this atmosphere and develop some great properties.
• "Pearson to Person" is the first in a series by the Pacific Coast Business Times in which staff writer Barbara Pearson will interview top names in the Central Coast business community.